Plain Text Version - Fiction
When Daley was five and I was eleven, I came home from school and Mama was sitting at the kitchen table crying. Daley was busy putting toothpicks into a row of holes in the pegboard mounted on the wall opposite the refrigerator and stove.
The pegboard was a new addition to the kitchen, a present from Mama to Daley. Or maybe it was a present from Mama to herself. It kept Daley occupied where Mama could keep an eye on him without going crazy. Before the pegboard, it was hard to coax Daley out of his room.
Mama daubed her eyes with a napkin and stared out the sliding glass doors to our backyard patio. “Do you remember the day we brought Daley home?” Mama asked. “He was in a little blue blanket. Do you remember?”
Daley counted out eighteen toothpicks, and began filling in a new hole. He was sweating and the soft, downy hairs on the back of his neck and around his temples were curled.
“He was really small and his eyes were closed. You let me hold him,” I said.
Mama reached for my hand, wanting me to sit at the table with her. I handed her my lunch box instead, pretending I didn’t understand. I felt bad, but sometimes when I came home from school, Mama scared me. If she got her hands on me when she was like that, she wouldn’t let go. She’d make me sit with her and Daley the rest of the day watching Leave It to Beaver reruns or some other make believe family.
Mama took my lunch bag and set it down on the carpet beside her chair. I reached down, irritated that she’d put it on the floor. But Mama brushed my hand away. Then she grabbed hold of my wrist and pinched me.
“Owww! What was that for?” I rubbed at the little red mark she’d left on my skin.
“That’s what you did to him.” Mama said it fast. She held her breath as she talked. “I showed you how to hold him, and I gave him to you. You looked so happy. Then you pinched him.”
Mama laughed but it was one of her bad kinds of laughs, like she wanted to cry but choked it back. She grabbed my arm again. “Why did you do that?” Her voice got louder and she leaned toward me, staring at me as if she was trying to see inside my head. “Why did you pinch him?”
“I don’t remember,” I said. “Honest. I don’t remember.”
“I just need to know.” Mama let me go. “I’m not mad at you.” She stood up and went to the kitchen counter. She took two tall glasses off the drain board.
“Would you like iced tea?” she asked.
She didn’t wait for me to answer. She didn’t need to. I loved iced tea so much. I’d eat two servings of pickled beets just to get some. She knew she had me. Knew I was trapped. No matter how weird she was acting, I wasn’t going anywhere.
She put in plenty of sugar, just the way I liked it, and took some ice cubes from the bowl she kept in the freezer. She got the special long handled spoons and brought everything to the table.
I loved the way those spoons sounded when she stirred the sugar at the bottom of the glass.
So did Daley.
He heard the spoons and the ice clinking, and he stopped filling the hole that had captured his attention. He put all the toothpicks back into the box, counting each one as he tucked them inside. When he was satisfied that all the toothpicks were turned in the same direction, he closed the box and put it down on the floor. In his funny lurching way, Daley walked over to the table and stood between Mama and me.
He stared at the ice cubes swirling in Mama’s glass.
“Do you want some, Daley?” Mama asked, in her Daley voice. She always talked to him like he was deaf or something, real slow and careful and louder than she talked to me. Distinct. She talked to him very distinct.
Of course, Daley didn’t answer. He never did. There was no give and take with Daley. But she got up as if he’d said, “Yes, please,” and went to the refrigerator.“I thought you were jealous,” she said. She tore two sections of paper towel off the roll, put them on the counter, and opened the freezer. She took out a new tray of ice and ran warm water over it.
“I was not,” I said, suddenly certain. “I loved him right away.”
Mama banged the tray on the edge of the counter, and emptied the ice into the bowl. Picking out two cubes, she held them up, and inspected them. She nodded, and put them on the paper towel.
“That’s what you said then!” She seemed all excited. “That is exactly what you said, right before I showed you how to hold him. You said, ‘I love him already!” See, you do remember.”
Mama came back to the table and sat down. She held the paper out for Daley. He just stared at Mama’s glass on the table. Finally, she did it the way Daley wanted. She put the towel down on the table, flattened it and sat back in her chair, giving him room.
Looking across at me she said, “You held him for a long time, and you looked so happy. You sang that song you loved, the one on the Donovan record. You crooned it to him, “Happiness runs, happiness runs.” You sang the whole damned song. And then you pinched his arm.”
Daley lurched forward and picked one cube up in each hand, so he could rearrange their placement on the towel. He put them down exactly in the center of each section, so they had equal amounts of white space around them.
Mama reached out and swept the sweaty curls off Daley’s forehead. He stared down at the neatly aligned squares.
“I asked you why, of course,” she said. “I thought you might remember. That you could explain it to me.” After fussing with Daley’s hair, she did the itsy-bitsy-spider walk with her fingers down his neck and chest. Sometimes, when she did that, Daley almost looked happy, but never when he was in one of his ice-cube trances. He twitched away from her hand.
I sipped my tea, savoring the feel of the ice against my teeth, and the sweet metallic taste in my mouth. Mama lit a cigarette.
Daley’s ice melted into the towel. When the water marks spread across the paper, and touched each other, he picked up both ice cubes and left the table.
“Ten minutes, thirty three seconds,” he said. He walked across the room, his legs stiff. He looked like Pinocchio, before he got turned into a boy. When he got to the pegboard he sat down with is back to it. He crossed his legs, like a Buddha, and rested the back of his hands on his knees, cradling one ice cube in each palm.
Mama checked her wristwatch, squinting through the smoke.
“You said you weren’t sure he was alive” She exhaled and her face was hidden in a plume of smoke. “You said he didn’t look real.”
I shrugged and sipped more tea, swinging my feet back and forth under my chair, banging my heels of my shoes into the rails. I didn’t want to talk about Daley, didn’t want to remember pinching him or how much I wanted a little brother.
Mama sat across from me, puffing smoke and waiting for me to say something.
I pictured it in my head. Mama coming through the door, looking so proud. I don’t remember Papa, so much. Maybe because he didn’t stick around very long after Daley came home.
Daley. He’d looked so perfect, so beautiful. He was very still inside his blanket. I wanted to hold him and see his eyes open, so badly. I wanted him to curl his fingers around one of mine. I sang to him, trying to wake him up. And after a while, I remember thinking Mama was playing a game with me. She’d left the real baby in the hospital and brought me a doll. So I pinched him. If he were real, he would open his eyes. He would cry, and I could comfort him. The only reaction I got was Mama’s slap. “He looked like a doll,” I said.
“I was worried that you meant to hurt him.” Mama sighed, “I never even noticed that he didn’t cry.” Mama shook her glass, made her ice cubes rattle. They were almost gone. It was a small sound.
Daley didn’t look up. He was watching the ice cubes melt in his hands.
We drank our tea, and Mama stared out the door. When the coal on her cigarette was all the way down to the filter, she blew smoke out from her nose, and crushed the butt in the ashtray she kept on the table.
“Daley needs a special place, a safe place, to live. Somewhere they can take care of him. I thought there might be a school, a special school for little boys like him.” She wet the tip of her finger with the tip of her tongue, and picked up an ash that had escaped onto the table. She flicked it into the ashtray, and she said, “There is a special school, but he has to go live there all the time.”
I looked at Mama, and then I looked at Daley.
“When?” I asked.
Mama pulled another cigarette out of her pack, and lit it. I drained the last of my ice tea. That was the sweetest part, the end of the glass, when the crystals that hadn’t melted flowed into my mouth with the tea.
Finally the ice cubes in Daley’s hands were just two little puddles in his palms. Mama checked her watch, “ Ten minutes, thirty three seconds. How does he do that?”
“Happiness runs, happiness runs,” he crooned. He kept repeating those four words as he counted out a new batch of toothpicks and started filling the next hole in the pegboard. Mama started crying again.
I tilted my glass and stuck my tongue inside it to get all the sugar off the sides.
“Happiness runs, happiness runs,” Daley sighed, as he broke the ends off the toothpicks in the hole he’d just filled. He pulled out eighteen new toothpicks and began filling in another row.
The next day I stayed home and helped Mama pack up Daley’s clothes, all his Lego blocks, his picture puzzles and his dominoes. We left the pegboard screwed into the wall. It was too big for the trunk of the car.
It took a long time to get Daley out of the house. Open spaces make him stiff as a board. Finally, I sang him the entire happiness song, and he followed me across the yard to the car.
It took two hours to get to his school. Mama didn’t cry on the way home, neither did I. We didn’t talk. She stared ahead, and I stared out my window.
When we got back to the house it was dinnertime. She smoked cigarettes as she made dinner, and I set the table and carried the plates. She filled two glasses and set one down above my plate.I pushed the glass off to the side, and said, “I don’t like ice tea.”